The case for an inclusive, citizen-centered strategy to dealing with the past
Kosovo citizens from diverse ethnic backgrounds believe that it is high time for Kosovo to come up with a strategy for a national and comprehensive approach for dealing with the past. However, each group has its own priorities that do not necessarily match. All concerns should be addressed under an inclusive strategy so Kosovo can move towards a peaceful future. These are findings from research undertaken by Kosovo civil society.
After 21 years after the violent conflict, Kosovo still lacks an overarching framework to deal with its past, while Kosovo society continues to suffer from the unresolved legacies of the 1998-99 war and its aftermath. Unresolved issues of the violent conflict in Kosovo continue to dominate political discourse in Kosovo and Serbia. This continues to impede the possibility of Kosovo citizens to reconcile with the past and move on towards a peaceful future. Most importantly, these lingering legacies continue to serve as a source of contention between and among ethnic groups in Kosovo and are often utilized for political agendas. It is high time to break this vicious circle of past.
During 2020, civil society organizations INTEGRA, New Social Initiative and PAX, with support from a broader civil society coalition, conducted two research studies on the needs of diverse sections in society for dealing with the legacies of the violent period. The first research looked into all previous efforts to deal with the past in Kosovo and identified gaps. So far, we have mostly witnessed sector-specific and side-by-side initiatives and institutional and legal pathways to address separately different issues related to the conflict. Most of the attention has gone to war crimes trials run by internationalized, hybrid and national courts in Kosovo and Serbia. The predominant focus on such trials has affected other important aspects of dealing with the past, such as truth-seeking and documentation, commemoration, reparations, and compensation, as well as recognition and support for all the victims and survivors of the conflict regardless of their identity and status. A small number of civil society organizations have been at the forefront of promoting civic and inclusive approaches to truth-telling, documenting, and supporting victims and survivors plus advocating for ethnic reconciliation. However, these have not yet led to sustained positive societal transformation. The most recent study highlights what diverse groups of citizens themselves find important to be dealt with to move forwards. COVID-19 limited the reach of the research but still 156 persons joined in 10 focus group sessions, while also individual interviews were held.
BOX: [transitional justice means a set of measures and actions to bring justice to victims and survivors of a conflict and usually includes war crimes trials, truth finding, reparations and compensation, and guarantees of non-recurrence]
The study found that the meaning of transitional justice in Kosovo is deeply intertwined with ethnic identity, and as such there is no consensus among diverse ethnic groups on how to tackle the legacies of the past. There is a predisposition to reduce the needs for transitional justice processes to only mono-ethnic and one-dimensional justice. Truth is perceived differently among each ethnic group and all are predisposed to push for mono-ethnic truth seeking, commemoration and documentation of the past. There still is a huge lack of reliable data on pre-war, war- and post-war crimes and serious human rights abuses. As a result, there is very little empathy and understanding of one another’s perspectives and experiences of the conflict. In general, all groups consider war crimes trails to be important to deal with the past, but the overall perception on the performance of war crimes courts is negative and there’s the conviction one’s own ethnic group is selectively targeted, and many alleged perpetrators remain free. Each group also has specific socio-economic concerns related to either the pre-war or post-war period. On top of that comes the reality that the political scenes in Serbia and Kosovo are dominated by war-time politicians or fighters who are perpetuating one-sided ethno-nationalist narratives.
More specifically, for Kosovo Albanians, resolving outstanding issues, such as knowing the fate of missing persons, prosecution of war crimes perpetrators, claiming reparations and compensation for war damages, as well as solidifying the independent statehood by persuading Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, are priorities. For Kosovo Serbs on the other hand, transitional justice is seen problematic as they do not believe it will bring justice to their victims, or that it would contribute positively to the present and future ethnic relations in Kosovo. They focus on the post-conflict period and treat the limited space for the Serb community in Kosovo to exercise their political, socio-economic, and language rights, including the right to free movement and return to pre-war settlements. For other smaller ethnic communities, transitional justice remains aspirational as there is a sense that their communities have neither received the deserved attention and support in seeking truth and justice for past war crimes nor have received benefit from different post-war socio-economic schemes as other dominant communities did.
The research findings show there is no consensus and little empathy among the ethnic groups on how to tackle the legacies of the past, on how to engage with and accept the experiences and perspectives of other ethnic communities, as well as on how to move on and envisage a shared future. Next to this, citizens have an entrenched negative perception about the willingness and the capacity of the international community, Serbian authorities, and the Government of Kosovo to promote justice and combat impunity for past war crimes and serious human rights abuses. While these are huge challenges, the research found that many participants expressed the need for a comprehensive strategy which takes into account the concerns and needs of all individuals and groups affected by the violent conflict regardless of their ethnic or social background.
The case for a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past is strong. An inclusive National Strategy is the only pathway to ensure that the past in not avoided and that a measure of justice is served to all affected communities, the truth comes forth, and that younger generations are not held hostage of the past but move towards a more peaceful society. Only through a bottom-up, citizen-centered, and inclusive process a future strategy and institutional action is likely to enjoy wide public legitimacy and make an impact in closing the chapters of the past and opening new ones for a better future. As such, the study recommends the following:
1. The future strategy needs to take into account that transitional justice has a different meaning to different ethnic communities in Kosovo, and should be designed from the bottom-up, including all affected communities. This requires it is designed through a participatory and citizen-centered process, which ensures local ownership and inclusion in the entire transitional justice process.
2. The future strategy should serve as a platform for many sides of truth to come forth, justice is brought to the victims in a non-selective and non-ethnic basis, and that entitlements are distributed in a just, fair, and inclusive process. The strategy must integrate different pillars of transitional justice so that the needs of affected communities are addressed in a holistic and inclusive manner.
3. To make sure a strategy is implemented in practice there is a need for an institutional mechanism which brings together existing transitional justice initiatives and mechanisms in Kosovo. The likelihood of a future strategy to succeed depends on a nation-wide consensus on the importance of prioritizing transitional justice policymaking and implementation, and thus commitment from all political parties, ethnic groups, civil society groups and affected communities, as well as international missions and donors in Kosovo.
4. State institutions and judicial bodies need to work closely with the civil society community and media to promote accurate and fact-based reporting on war-related issues. There is a pressing need to design educational and outreach programs which enhance the general public’s knowledge on transitional justice.
5. The EU-facilitated dialogue for normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo must address the pressing and outstanding issues for dealing with the past and an eventual agreement should consider the needs and perspectives of all affected communities.
This article draws on the studies ‘Democratizing Transitional Justice Towards a Deliberative Infrastructure for Dealing with the Past in Kosovo’ (May 2020) and ‘Citizens Perception on a Future Strategy for Transitional Justice in Kosovo’ (January 2021), both authored by Dr. Gëzim Visoka and Besart Lumi; powered by Integra, NSI, PAX, and supported by the Knowledge Platform on Security and the Rule of Law (Netherlands) and the U.S. Embassy in Pristina.